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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Influencing social policy in the public interest

How can psychologists and other social scientists interested in making a difference become more fully and effectively engaged in the policy world? To address this question, in-depth interviews were conducted with 79 psychologists who were asked to describe their policy experiences over the course of their careers, with particular focus on a major policy success. They described varied vantage points through which to influence policy, key policy methods, a core set of policy influence skills, and important guiding principles honed through years of policy influence activity.

Vantage points for policy influence

Three important vantage points provide settings and roles by which psychologists and other social scientists can influence policy.

  1. Researchers in academia, both in traditional departments and in interdisciplinary policy centers.
  2. Administrators and staff in a variety of intermediary organizations, including professional membership organizations, national academies, consulting and evaluation firms, and foundations.
  3. Policy insiders, including staffers for legislators or legislative committees, elected officials, and executive branch officials or civil servants.

Policy methods

Use of varied methods are central to effective policy work. These include:

  1. Serving on policy advisory groups
  2. Direct communication with policymakers
  3. Courtroom-focused activities
  4. Consultation and technical assistance
  5. Generation of policy-relevant documents
  6. External advocacy
  7. Use of the media
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Conference, microphone by fill. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

Some of these methods constitute a direct policy pathway, involving direct communication with policymakers and their staff. Other methods involve an indirect policy pathway, relying on communication with others (e.g., advocacy groups, media, citizens) who in turn exert influence on policymakers. Furthermore, the methods vary in the extent to which the underlying mechanism of influence relies on education, guidance, persuasion, or pressure.

Policy skills

Four sets of skills appear essential to effective policy work.

  1. Relationship building skills contribute to productive engagement with key legislative and/or executive branch policymakers (or their staff members), individuals in intermediary organizations, media, practitioner groups, and/or researchers in multiple disciplines.
  2. Research skills are critical both for scholars conducting original research and for those in “translational” roles in intermediary organizations and government. For the latter, the capacity for critical analysis (differentiate stronger from weaker research) and to generate research syntheses (integrative research reviews) are especially important.
  3. Communication skills, though related to relationship building, stand in their own right as another critical policy-influence skill. Both oral and written communication skills are important, as is the ability to generate and communicate a compelling policy narrative.
  4. Strategic analysis encompasses both policy analysis and strategy development. Knowledge of the political and policy process is a necessary precondition for effective strategy development.

Guiding principles

Collectively, the personal experiences of those interviewed underscore a number of guiding principles related to psychologists’ involvement in policy-influence work in the public interest. These guiding principles represent what our field can learn from seasoned psychologists who work to enhance our country’s social policies, and include:

  1. Being strategic in every aspect of the research-to-policy endeavor
  2. Getting the message out
  3. Developing relationships and partnerships with policy players
  4. Developing or evaluating innovative programs and establishing cost-effectiveness
  5. Being resilient, persevering, and staying on the lookout for opportunities

Psychologists consider the policy arena and their work within it to be exciting, unpredictable, frustrating, rewarding, and challenging, but also essential. Although extremely important, this work is not easy. Respondents were forthright about the barriers to success and the difficulty of achieving policy change, their policy-influence victories notwithstanding. Indeed, the challenges facing all of us as we strive to influence social policy are legion. Vested interests, partisan politics, and tight budgets are some of the external barriers to transforming innovative ideas into tangible forms of policy change. Lack of policy knowledge, limited immersion in policy networks, and the absence of professional incentives for this work are some of the internal challenges. Nonetheless, those interviewed have succeeded in contributing in important ways to policy change in the public interest.

Featured image credit: ‘London Underground train station’ by Unsplash. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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